Friday, November 04, 2011

Where Has All the Funny Gone?

There was a weird phenomenon that swept through the 1980s; scientists for half a decade seemed to get really funny. At no point in history have more comedies about scientists been released over such a short time. Science comedies, or sci-coms as I like to think of them, usually track some wacky scientist throwing together some physics-defying invention and having it all go awry, hilariously. It’s a genre that seems to have died, but I guess the flux capacitor that burns twice as bright, burns twice as fast.

Ghostbusters (1984): The granddaddy of them all. Dr. Peter Venkman’s legendary axiom, “Back off man, I’m a scientist,” captures the essence of Ghostbusters, and really sci-coms as a genre. Bringing butt kicking science to paranormal phantasms, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis are on a mission to rid New York of all pesky ghosts, spirits and other supernatural specters. Technically the team’s made up of parapsychologists, but you have to have a pretty hefty physics backgrounds to build portable nuclear accelerator backpacks and laser-based ghost containment systems. What’s more is a lot of actors who cut their teeth on Ghostbusters would go on to star in other sci-coms of the ‘80s.

Back to the Future (1985): The classic. Time travel, malt shops and Libyan terrorists, this movie really has it all. The quintessential wacky scientist movie of the ‘80s, and really of all time, it proves that even a DMC DeLorean can be cool when outfitted with a flux capacitor and Michael J. Fox. Christopher Lloyd played the absentminded scientist Doc Emmitt Brown, whom all future absentminded scientists would be forever compared to. What’s great is that the time paradoxes that Marty McFly’s hijinks create are the stuff of real physics debates. The movie is nothing more than the manifestation of the “Grandmother Paradox,” or sometimes the “Grandfather Paradox” asking the question if you travel back in time and kill you’re grandmother before your parents were born, how can you exist to travel back in time and kill her. Even today, physicists are still wrestling with this problem. One explanation is that maybe the universe doesn’t allow time travel to happen. But that doesn’t make for much of a movie now does it?

Weird Science (1985): What do two hopelessly nerdy kids have to do to be cool? Well in the 1980s the obvious solution was fire up the old Memotech MTX512, design the perfect woman and then have her materialize out of thin air. Easy, no? John Hughes’s contribution to the sci-com genre might have been a bit lighter on the physics, the kids are high school computer programmers, rather than research scientists, but it’s got “Science” right there in the title. Deep down, it's a movie about growing up, coming to terms with your identity and learning to accept who you are; John Hughes's bread and butter.

Real Genius (1985): Here’s a movie that’s got physics all the way through to its core. Val Kilmer stars as hyper-brilliant physics student Chris Knight building a 5 megawatt laser. Though not actually filmed there, the university it takes place at is unquestionably based off of Caltech, while other parts of the film were even at General Atomics in La Jolla, California. Technically, physicists today are nowhere near building individual lasers as powerful as 5 megawatts, just now getting close to 1 megawatt, but the director Martha Coolidge spent months researching laser technology and interviewing Caltech students to get the science right. Those keen eyed observers might notice Kilmer’s professor was played by William Atherton, the same guy who was the wormy EPA bureaucrat in Ghostbusters.

Innerspace (1987): Dennis Quaid is in a teeny tiny submarine trapped inside of Martin Short after scientists shrink Quaid down to micro-size and accidentally inject him into the bumbling grocery store clerk. A parody of 1966’s Fantastic Voyage, some have seen Innerspace as an important statement to the public about the potential importance of nanotechnology, while others saw it more as a vehicle for Martin Short to make funny faces at the camera for an hour and a half. Either way it’s a thoroughly enjoyable film.

My Stepmother is an Alien (1988): Dan Aykroyd is a scientist (again) who sends a stream of powerful radio signals across the universe to a distant planet and, um, disrupts its gravity. Yah, nothing about that really makes much sense, but there’s a lot about the eighties that doesn’t make much sense, like parachute pants or Rick Astley. In response, the afflicted planet sends Kim Basinger to investigate what happened, and spends a weekend trying to understand inscrutable human customs while trying not to blow her cover.

Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989): After his stint as the dorky neighbor in Ghostbusters, Rick Moranis takes center stage as the eccentric scientist/inventor who builds a shrinking ray in his attic. In a way it’s amazing how much movie science seemed to have happened in the attic, the garage, basements and the like during the eighties. Probably has something to do with how huge computer companies like Apple and Microsoft likewise started in their founder’s garages, but I digress. Naturally the experiment unexpectedly goes awry and he accidentally shrinks his and the neighbor’s kids smaller than a grain of rice. They get trapped at the far end of the backyard and have to venture across the untamed wilderness using nothing but their wits to survive everything from the dreaded lawnmower, the treacherous sprinkler system and rampaging monster ants.

Any I missed? Let’s see if we can get a list going in the comments!


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  2. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) ... Dude ...

  3. Young Einstein! That's great! I've never hear of that one.

    I thought about putting up Bill and Ted, though it's not really about scientists, but definitely worth an honorable mention. Same with Short Circuit.